In the middle of the night, a platoon of U.S. soldiers is building an outpost on a remote hillside in Afghanistan. Taliban sympathizers are watching. This is the Korengal Valley in Kunar Province, one of Afghanistan’s most inhospitable areas. The soldiers assigned to this place know it as “The Valley of Death.” It’s perhaps the most dangerous place in Afghanistan for any soldier to serve. The occupants will see more than 500 gunfights during their stay, and not every soldier will make it home. With attacks at close range, no running water, and the enemy on the other side of the sandbags, this is Restrepo.
Named in honor of a medic killed in combat, Restrepo was more than just a base to the platoon followed in a new documentary of the same name. The men stationed here literally left blood, sweat, and tears behind; the isolation and near-constant threat of death also took a heavy psychological toll.
Two filmmakers tell the story of the Battle Company of the 173rd Airborne Brigade – capturing the highs and lows of a 15-month deployment here. Shooting more than 150 hours of video, Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger bring us a film of raw intensity: the sounds, the silence, the constant anxiety of an attack, the look on a soldier’s face as he sees his friend killed just ten feet away by a Taliban bullet.
Appearing on CNN’s "Campbell Brown" last week, Junger explained the isolation of Restrepo. “They couldn't communicate with home for a month at a time. It was, basically, they were on Mars. They had a rudimentary outpost.”
Junger said the elements and lack of utilities at the camp made for harsh living conditions. “They didn't bathe for a month at a time. No internet, no phone, no electricity at first, no cooked food, hellishly hot in the summer, swarming with flies.”
The platoon was alone in the middle of Taliban country. Part of the soldiers' duty was to patrol nearby settlements. Attempting to make their presence accepted, soldiers would go door to door promising to help the region while trying to get tips on who was connected to the fighters. By and large, the locals were distrustful, some hostile. A house search might turn up a handful of rocket launchers. Just another day on patrol.
The film also brings the culture of this isolated and fiercely independent part of Afghanistan into focus. The platoon held weekly meetings with elders where it became apparent that language was not the only barrier to better relations. Questions came from elders over the detention of locals whom the U.S. military felt were working with the Taliban. There was also a lack of trust: The elders felt they’d been betrayed by previous commanders in the area. There was also a confrontation between the soldiers and locals over compensation for a cow the soldiers had killed when it became entangled in a fence.
The soldiers were in a situation where victory – or even progress – was difficult to imagine. What the film conveys is how they coped with their deployment by relying on each other. There were no additional forces close at hand, no extra security forces brought in. “What was going on up there was brotherhood,” says Junger. “Very different from friendship. Brotherhood, you don't even have to like the guy, but if he's your brother you'll protect him, you'll die for him. They all felt that way about each other. And for a 19-year-old, a 20-year-old, that arrangement is a very, very secure place to be emotionally or psychologically.”
Another fear the platoon confronted was the fear their sacrifices were overlooked by their countrymen. Junger recounted that struggle to Brown. “One very cold winter night out there at Restrepo, at this remote outpost, one of the guys said to me, 'Hey, Sebastian, let me ask you a question. Does anyone even know we're out here?' And I said ... 'Yes, they know you're in Afghanistan, of course. But do they know you're at a 15-man outpost on a hilltop in zero-degree weather getting attacked five times a day? You haven't had a shower in a month? No. They don't know that.' They're fighting incredibly hard out there. And that reality, Americans do not quite understand what that reality means.”
Junger told Brown a soldier’s transition back into everyday life is extremely difficult. “They come back to society and all of a sudden they're just 19-year-old kids again, bottom of the food chain. They don't know what role they're supposed to play in society. They really don't know who they are. That is actually more insecure, more threatening than a place like Restrepo.”
In the film, a soldier talks about the rush of being in a war zone. “You can skydive or bungee jump or kayak, but once you have been shot at, you really can’t come down. There’s nothing … you can’t top that.” “How are you going back in the civilian world then?” Junger asks him. He simply replies, “I have no idea.”
Junger says that despite everything they had to endure, after only a few weeks away from the post at Restrepo, most of the soldiers wanted to go back.
CNN's Emma Lacey-Bordeaux contributed to this report.